On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of the most important speeches in American history. It’s referred to as “the Riverside speech” in reference to King delivering the speech at Riverside Church in New York City. It’s also called “Breaking the Silence” or “Beyond Vietnam.” In it he decisively and publicly expands his ministry to include opposition to the U.S. war against Vietnam. He was vilified for this move by his “friends” as well as his detractors. The Riverside speech, which names the sickness eating the American soul as “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism,” was a watershed moment in American history. A year later, to the day, Dr. King was assassinated.
King’s Riverside speech draws heavily from a draft by civil rights leader and historian Dr. Vincent G. Harding that Harding had written over his Christmas vacation in 1966. King made a few minor changes but essentially delivered Harding’s original text. In preparation for the 40th anniversary of King’s address, Sojourners interviewed Dr. Harding on the history and context of the speech and what it means for America today. Dr. Harding was interviewed by Sojourners associate editor Rose Marie Berger in December 2006.
SOJOURNERS: Do you mind just offering a prayer for us, just as we begin.
VINCENT G. HARDING: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Please speak to us and through us and with us. And help us to know what that speaking means for us. Thank you. Amen.
SOJOURNERS: My first questions are about the historical context of the “Beyond Vietnam” speech and your place in that context. My memory is that in ’64 or ’65 you had gone back north to Evanston, IL, and in ’66 or so you came back to Atlanta to Spelman College. Is that right?
HARDING: We came back to Spelman or back to Atlanta in ’65 after I’d finished my work at the University of Chicago. And you want me just to go ahead and talk about that period and where that was leading as far as that speech was concerned?
SOJOURNERS: How did you get involved with it? What was happening with Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at the time? What were the struggles in Dr. King’s own conscience around that speech? There were obviously very strong pressures against him moving in that direction.
HARDING: I think it’s important to know that for about as long as the war was going on, Martin was raising questions about it. Rose [Freeney Harding] and I fairly often attended Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, especially when Martin was preaching, and it was clear that he was opposing the war and that he was opposing it from a deeply Christian perspective. And then when we went to stay at Reba Place [Christian community] for a while and in the course of that I finished my doctoral program at the University of Chicago and was invited to come and chair the history department at Spelman. Partly as a result of the kinds of discussions and discernings that we were doing at Reba Place, and partly because of what I was going to do there in Atlanta to teach, I became very concerned that I not go to a teaching situation with young people without having some greater clarity about that war, and where it came from and what its setting was, than what I had.
Then I was scheduled to go back to Atlanta with my family in the fall of ’65 and during that summer I really immersed myself in studying what Vietnam was all about and especially the historical backgrounds and I believe it was that summer that I decided to write something to the SCLC convention, because I had been normally, fairly regularly attending the convention since when we first went south in ’61. And what I wrote was essentially an open letter to Martin and the delegates, essentially saying that all through our movement, we had highly valued the response that we got from people involved in anti-colonial struggles all over the world, and their words, their letters, their telegrams, their communications of various kinds indicating solidarity and support for what we were doing were very important for us. And I raised the question as to whether or not we could, in conscience, keep still about what was going on in Vietnam in the light of that kind of response that we have gotten and that we often sought from those involved in anti-colonial struggles. And Martin expressed appreciation for the letter and it was clear that we were basically on the same page as far as the war was concerned. And he continued to occasionally raise his voice on that.
By ’66 he had made a number of public statements opposing the war. So much so that [President Lyndon] Johnson was increasingly troubled by that kind of opposition coming from what he considered his own camp. And he asked Martin to spend some time with Arthur Goldberg who was then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. I seem to recall the terminology that was used was that Goldberg would explain everything to him and would set him right on what was going on in Vietnam and why we were there and etc., etc. I guess, remembering the letter, Martin and Andy [Young]—who was in a sense one of my key connections to SCLC—Martin and Andy asked me to put together some talking points to prepare for that engagement with Goldberg. And for some reason that I don’t remember right now, that encounter didn’t take place, but Vietnam was clearly on the agenda as far as we were concerned. And Martin, as a true southerner, did not often leap on certain kinds of things, but they simmered. Vietnam was simmering with him for a long time.
And what he began to look for were occasions and settings he could feel were the right places and times for him to speak out. He began more and more to look for a public platform that was not simply a political platform in terms of the rising anti-Vietnam movement, one that would gather in his religious concerns even more than the political ones. And Jim Bevel—that magnificent madman of the movement—was urging him to be involved with the political elements of this, but I don’t remember how or under what circumstances this invitation finally came from the clergy and laymen concerned to speak at their gathering in New York at Riverside. But the invitation came, and that seemed to Martin the place and the setting that would make great sense for him to try to say what he wanted to say in a public religiously-based platform.
As usual, he was involved in these thousands-of-miles-a-year kind of travel, and I’m fairly certain the process was he asked Andy to ask me if I would do a draft for the occasion. And I think that that was sometime in the fall of ’66 because my best memory is that I spent … I was teaching at Spelman at the time, and I’m fairly certain I spent Christmas break focused on that speech. My wife and children often went to Chicago over the holidays. They went and I was alone in the house and I worked on it then. By and large Martin seemed fairly satisfied with what I provided and most of the speech was based on that draft. He added some things at the end, and we often laughed about the fact that one of the great Columbia University liberals, Henry Steele Commager,the historian, was going around after the speech telling everybody that he knew exactly what was going on there, that King had written the major part and somebody else put on an ending.
But it was a very clear matter that Martin had to fight his way through to stand in that position, because [President Lyndon] Johnson, of course, was Johnson in all of his complexity. He was the most powerful ally to the black freedom struggle that we had known for a long long time; some people would think since Lincoln. He was clearly growing in that area and becoming more and more understanding of what it was all about, especially the role of the government in it all. Many people were deeply concerned not to publicly oppose him on what had become—terribly so—his war. Martin had to work on that one and people were quite certain that not only would this vex the maximum leader, but it would probably vex a lot of white liberals in America who were still on the Vietnam train, and cut into the funding of SCLC especially.
There were some people, of course, who at that very time in history saw a person of religious faith—and especially a person of ministerial calling—as out of place entering into what they would define as a political question like that. Down deep within all of it was America’s racist attitude, which essentially said in so many other words: “It’s all right, King, for you to talk about colored things—but, when it comes to foreign policy, that’s our business. We, the white thinkers and holders of conventional wisdom, are the ones who are in charge of that and we really don’t want to hear anything from you about that because you’re not qualified.”
So all of that was part of what he had to deal with and a lot of those struggles concerning Johnson, concerning the dangers to the movement, were struggles right within his own organization, his own family, and he had to work on those.
As I remember Andy [Young] asked several other people to look at the draft that I had done. There were maybe a few other kinds of changes but nothing major. I think I remember my friend John [McGuire], who was one of those people who had been a dear friend of Martin and Coretta [Scott King] for a long time, and he was there. The one other thing that is important for me is, well I guess two now, King in making that speech in a sense caught up with some of the more radical folks within the freedom movement, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC]. Because SNCC had been coming out openly opposed to the war especially out of the context of their gallant work in the grassroots southern rural communities and their coming into touch early with the boys who were coming back dead from their being drafted into that war. SNCC was encouraging others to raise real questions about what it meant for these young men to be sent to supposedly fight to protect democracy in Southeast Asia when there was no democracy for them in Southwest Georgia. Stokely [Carmichael] was very, very glad when he understood that Martin was going to lift this up to another level.
The second thing that I wanted to say is that after the speech, as you know, all the keepers of the conventional wisdom, especially in The New York Times and The Washington Post, simply vilified Martin and condemned him and spoke about the fact that he had done ill-service not only to his country, but to “his people.” That was very hard for him because on a certain level, the approval of the white, liberal media had been a kind of protective covering for the movement and for him for a number of years, especially since the march on Washington.
In a sense, he was more exposed as a result of taking that stand, but he knew he was going to be more exposed. When he was assassinated, precisely a year to the day after that speech, on a very personal level—in addition to all the sense of loss I felt in terms of my friend—I also had some deeply difficult feelings about what possible ways I had contributed to the forces that led to his assassination. I was working on that guilt and grief combination for a while.
SOJOURNERS: Because of encouraging him in that direction?
HARDING: That’s what I was thinking. And I got helped through that by my dear friend Jim Lawson, because one day we were on the phone talking about something and I started to ask him about how he felt being the one who had invited Martin to come to Memphis. And in a sense I was asking him to help myself out with how he dealt with the results of Martin coming to Memphis. As you may know, he has this wonderful combination of deep compassion and a very clear no-nonsenseness about him, and he said, “You know I understand what you’re asking about.”
Jim said, “Vincent, when I invited Martin to come, it was in a phone call and he was in a staff meeting or some kind of meeting in Atlanta. I could just hear other voices, some of which I recognized, in the room … while Martin was on the phone. And when I told him about the need for him to come and stand with the garbage workers, because they needed that kind of national attention brought to what they were doing … Martin immediately began to ask for details about what it was I wanted and when. The people in the room just began shouting—‘No, Martin you can’t go! No, we can’t go! We’ve got the poor people’s campaign we’re still trying to plan, blah blah blah.’”
What was very, very clear to Jim was that he was not in any way coercing Martin to come to Memphis. Martin wanted to come to Memphis. Jim was simply opening the door and Martin said, “Well, this is the poor people’s campaign.”
So Jim Lawson said, “You really have to keep that in mind,” and Lawson encouraged me to recognize what I knew behind the emotions that had gotten in the way. I was not putting ideas into Martin’s head, not even words so much into Martin’s mouth, but I was simply being a servant and brother and friend and doing something for him that he didn’t have time to do for himself.
But Martin knew where I was coming from, I knew where he was coming from and what came forward then was really my encouragement to him, to say, “Martin, this is you. And here is what is I understand you to be about as far as this war is concerned; as far as your faith is concerned; as far as the relationship between your faith and this war.” The fact that he would take it up and use it so fully was clearly a testimony to the fact that, yes, that was whathe saw and that was what he felt. And that I ought to just back off from the guilt business and let him be himself and realize that it was he who had taken the initiative, for one thing, to accept that invitation. It was he who had those deep, deep, profound feelings about what his calling was as a follower of Jesus to a situation like Vietnam.
I think that is probably the essence of what I would reflect on before any other questions that you might want to lift up, Rose.
SOJOURNERS: Can you say a little bit more about that Christmas season where you were working on the draft and incorporating what you have done for the draft and your own looking into the history of Vietnam, reflecting on the anti-colonial movement, your own commitment to peace on a broader level. Is there anything more about that time as you were creating the draft that you want to say?
HARDING: I want to be very careful about manufacturing history at this point. I know that I felt a deep sense of responsibility. I know that I was very very grateful that somehow I had been pushed by the spirit, by the world, by the universe, to get a deep understanding of Vietnam for myself before all of that. I know that I had great responsibility. I’m not sure that there is much more that I could say. Obviously, there are some lovely connections that could be made with Christmas and all of that!
SOJOURNERS: The “Beyond Vietnam” speech carries the language: “They must see Americans as strange liberators.” It was a time when the body counts of American soldiers were skyrocketing. This speech contains almost an exit strategy or at least components of what would be important in stopping the bombing…
HARDING: Let me stop you on that because the connection wasn’t clear enough for me. That terminology of “They must see Americans as strange liberators” was not tied to American body counts. It was tied to what we were doing to their land and to their people.
SOJOURNERS: Right. Much of this speech is very appropriate for where we are today. We are fighting a “war of liberation” in Iraq and trying to figure out how to get out of it. The churches have been strong in trying to offer vocal opposition to that war from very deep religious stand.
HARDING: Some churches.
SOJOURNERS: Some churches. It hasn’t been enough. It hasn’t been strong enough. It hasn’t been effective enough. What are your thoughts on this in the context of this speech? What questions do we need to be asking in our current context?
HARDING: More questions than I can even articulate in a half an hour, but one layer would be: How does one pick up at this moment the fundamental sense of identity that Martin was working from at that moment, so that the issue is not simply how similar the externals are, but where are we in the struggle for “What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus, the peacemaker, who called others to be peacemakers, as a part of the identity of children of God?”
What does it mean to take seriously this whole idea that our national identity—from the position that Martin was taking—is secondary to our spiritual identity? And that the national identity has to come under the scrutiny of our spiritual identity?
Whether you take it from the point of view that Martin was taking it—as a child of God who is called into the family by connection with Jesus the Christ—or if you take it from a deeply humanitarian spirituality—as the child of God who is child of God because we exist in God’s world—then we have to ask this whole question about what is patriotism, what is nationalism, and especially what does it mean to follow the national leaders into the destruction of others of God’s children.
On one simple level it’s the kind of question that dear beloved Muhammad Ali was raising in his heyday when he said, “No Viet Cong ever called me Nigga.” That’s another way of insisting that we not be slaves to the mentality of our leaders and their institutions. But that we be strong, convinced, integrated individuals, who have our own deep sense of who we are and therefore what we do and why we do it.
What do the children of God do when the leaders say to us that all these people and all these other places are not really children of God but enemies? The question of how we struggle with that, I think, is a very powerful one.
The other thing that I think is a part of this story, and particularly now for those who identify themselves with the community of Christian faith, is: What does it do to the Christian faith when we recognize that this community had its beginning in a setting where most of us were outcasts from the empire’s power? That we were not favorites of the empire at all, and that we got into a lot of trouble with the empire? What does it mean when the Christian community now identifies itself with the empire, and apologizes for the empire, and goes to war with the empire?
I think [our identity with empire] throws us off. Puts us off balance. The whole issue of identity then becomes a critical question: What happens to a faith that grew out of that kind of setting and that now is in this kind of setting?
I don’t think we spend enough time wrestling with that one. One of the underlying issues becomes the question—in what purports to be a democratic community and what, at its best, has tried to be a democratic community: What does it mean to have democratic citizenship responsibility and have the identity of children of the living God? I think it is a crucial matter that underlies a lot of the Left vs. Right stuff that we’ve been wrestling with over the last 20 years or so within the religious communities.
Martin was sensitive to a great deal of those issues and, in a sense, he was constantly saying: “Children of God, where do you stand? Where do you stand in relationship to our own country? Where to you stand in relationship to the sufferings and oppressions of the world? And where do you stand in relationship to our country’s contribution to those sufferings?” I think the challenge is still very, very present.
SOJOURNERS: What would you say are the processes by which the children of God reclaim their identity, or step more fully into it, or return to it?
HARDING: Let me be a little troublesome on the way to a response of that, Rose. In spite of my sometimes identity as a historian, in this country I have a natural tendency to back off when I hear language like “return to” or “reclaim,” because I don’t think that we have ever been in any place that we should return to as far as this country is concerned.
I think that we are constantly moving toward where we might best be. That this country is a country still in process and that we, who call ourselves children of God, are still in process. So I’m not really—when I use that language that Martin was using about what does it mean to be children of God, I don’t think that there was any wonderful time when we knew what it was like to be children of God, and now all we have to do is get back to that.
SOJOURNERS: So we are still “becoming”…
HARDING: We’re still pressing forward. Pressing toward the calling. That’s also the case, of course, with this country as a democracy. We are still a developing country. We’re a developing nation, where democracy is concerned. So … developing nation, developing Christians, everybody’s developing!
We have to figure out how these developments go together—where they mesh and where they conflict with each other. Clearly, one of the ways in which we manage this movement forward is by expanded circles like this, where we spend time asking each other helpful, thoughtful, questions about who we are and where we are, and what does this all mean now. We must recognize that so many of the questions which people thought were answered 50 years ago, 500 years ago, 5000 years ago, are still open.
If God is anything like God’s creation, then things are constantly opening up in new shapes and forms that we’ve never dreamed of. The capacity to follow and understand and see and imagine what those new directions are is part of our identity as children of the Great Creator. I think that’s a lot of wrestling!
My daughter tells me that I take too much time and spend too much energy on the wrestling motif. She says, “I think dancing would be better.” I’m all for that too. I think we need to dance together to figure out who we are and where we are going.
SOJOURNERS: In March 2007, it’ll be the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq. There are questions about how the religious community in the United States should mark that date. It’s hard to figure out anything other than the sort of public grieving that comes out of the prophet Jeremiah. Do you have thoughts on that? Do we just stand in front of the White House and register a protest? Is that effective? How do you deal with the fact that so many people have been killed in Iraq—Americans, Iraqis, and others?
HARDING: I want to meddle with the question again, Rose. You spoke about how the religious community should respond to this. I think that in a weird and almost deeply painful kind of way, one of the things that has happened since 9/11 and since the war against the Iraqi people is that we have—when we’re at our best—had to redefine what we mean by “the religious community in America.” And in an odd kind of way, without simply trying to be an agent provocateur, I am sensing that here—as in other absolutely strange and unexpected places—we might want to take at least a moment to give thanks for the fact that we have been opened up in ways that we would never have been opened up if it not had been for these tragic events.
I remember right after 9/11, somebody was interviewing Americans in England as to what their response was. I think it was BBC. They interviewed a black woman who was over there for some reason, teaching or studying something. She said, “My country has been bombed into the world.”
I think that one of the unconventional things that we could do is to recognize how we have been bombed into a new world of what “religious community” means and to make sure that, whatever response we make to this terrible anniversary, that it be done with real religious community taking place. With a focus on finding a way to really be in deep, hugging relationship with our Muslim sisters and brothers, because they are still in a lot of trouble in this country and elsewhere.
We’ve got to find some ways to make it clear that, in addition, we are mourning what has happened in these last four years. The mourning over 9/11 moves right into the mourning over Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s one long sense of mourning.
None of the actions taken have been actions of life-giving and creativity. They have all been terrible actions and reactions that have been against life. Taking life for life. We’ve got to make it clear that we reject that in some way or another. We want to find sources of new life that we haven’t yet discovered.
I don’t have any easily stated and packaged actions because I’m thinking more than actions. I’m thinking about beings—how do we be, in response to what’s going on? Thanks for, as usual, helping me to open up for myself what I may or may not know is there.
SOJOURNERS: Is there anything else that you want to circle back to or, say or touch on, or should we stop?
HARDING: I think that there are two things that I have to keep testifying to, and that is that wherever I go in this country, and I go a lot of places, I find a lot of young people who are struggling, wrestling, dancing. Trying to find the new way, trying to figure out what our calling is now. A lot of young people are asking not “how can we replicate the ’60s,” but “How can we be who we are meant to be for the 21st century?” The war, 9/11, all of that has stimulated a lot of wrestling and dancing.
The second thing that is on my mind, that I’ve been talking with some of my friends about, is the peculiar challenge that this period presents to the Black churches in this country. In the light of the constant history that we have of challenging this country—from the days when we were challenging the writing of the Constitution of the country to the days that we were challenging the institution of slavery in the country to the days we were calling upon the country to break out of its subjugation to white supremacist ideas and institutions—this is a moment when the Black churches are really threatened with a loss of focus and direction.
At the same moment we have this magnificent resource of history on which we could be calling to jump out to the next stage. But the next stage can not be simply an individualistic stage of “how happy I am in the Lord” but “what is our calling of transformation of this country and this world in the light of the role that we have played over these hundreds of years?”
This is this moment of realizing what King, as a representative of those churches, was trying to do 40 years ago. He was calling the country out of the stance of a lover who was deeply unhappy with the direction of the country. I think we need to be asking, “What does he have to teach the church that helped to create him?
Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor of Sojourners. This interview was used in “Dreaming America” (Sojourners, April 2007). For more on Vincent G. Harding, see the Veterans of Hope project (www.veteransofhope.org).